Short story collections are an odd beast. Often they are a selection of disparate stories thrown together by a publisher for reasons such as best of the year compilations, or seasonal treats. Within a collection, there are usually stories that appeal to some but not all; some great and some average. So, when a book comes along with no apparent agenda called Unnatural Creatures and they are selected by Neil Gaiman, well, colour me curious.
What we have is a collection of new and old tales chosen by Gaiman and co-edited with Maria Dahvana Headley – best known for Queen of Kings. They also both contribute. The stories pretty much all fit together in terms of genre, despite them ranging from mythology to science fiction to horror. For these are stories of make-believe creatures; not necessarily monsters. Gaiman himself in the introduction alludes to the idea of a Museum of Unnatural History, which might house specimens found within this book. Gorgeous idea. The introduction suggests “a number of stories featuring unnatural creatures along with several other creatures who are either unlikely, impossible or do not exist at all’. Which sums it up nicely. As well as the theme, this collection has a narrative style. Old-fashioned story-telling. Make believe. Once upon a time in a land not so far away, but where magic is real.
The book itself is thoughtfully presented with each story accompanied by a few words from Gaiman informing the reader about the author and a short introduction. Each then begins with an appropriate illustration by Briony Morrow-Cribbs.
The stories then, briefly, are the tale of a mysterious plant-like creature from Gahan Wilson, which includes his oddly threatening illustrations. E. Lily Yu presents the reader with sentient bees and wasps. Frank R Stockton’s story, The Griffin and the Minor Canon, feels like the closest to traditional westernised mythology, while Nnedi Okorafor taps into Nigerian lore with Ozioma the Wicked, who is the girl who talks to snakes. Gaiman’s contribution is a wonderful story of the Sunbird and the infamous Epicurean Club. Next up is a tale of gods and dragons from Diana Wynne Jones: The Sage of Theare. Saki tells a tale of a boy and a beast…or is it? Meanwhile, the comically delightful story of the Cockatoucan comes from E Nesbit. Co-editor Headley’s contribution is Moveable Beast, an intriguing piece about a beast who can be found in a mini-forest. Larry Niven combines science fiction with the magical in The Flight of the Horse and fellow science fiction author Samuel R Delany presents Prismatica which is about a creature in a trunk and is a story of colour. Megan Kurahige is influenced again by this idea of Natural History museums with her story The Manticore, the Mermaid and Me. The longest work, and probably the most fun, is a story by Anthony Boucher called The Compleat Werewolf. Nalo Hopkinson presents more traditional mythology with The Smile on the Face based on the idea magical trees. Avram Davidson’s creature is perhaps the most unusual and intriguing of all. Read Or all the seas with oysters to see why. Finally, as Gaiman says, the concluding tale features the most ‘natural of unnatural creatures’ in Peter S Beagle’s Come Lady Death. So as you can see, a refreshingly diverse set of storytellers brought together under a common umbrella.
There is a good consistency of story-telling across all of these, but as in all collections, some stories stand out and others are weaker. Yu’s is perhaps the most forgettable, but only because in a menagerie of such wonders, cartographer wasps and anarchist bees are the least wonderful. Gaimen’s entry is enchanting; Boucher’s was the most enjoyable to read. Larry Niven’s mix of science fiction and myth really worked for me, and it was delightfully witty. However, my favourite story was Stockton’s take of the griffin. It made me smile, think about the way mythology is presented and made me want to read more of his work. Okorafor and Nesbit had a similar effect. Some people use short story collections as gateways into new writers and if anyone isn’t familiar with any of these, they should really check this collection out. There isn’t a moment of brilliance, but there’s nothing to disappoint too. A solidly enjoyable walk about the best of museums; that of the imagination.
All the authors in this collection have allowed their work to be used for free for the benefit of Dave Eggers’ literacy charity.